A little over a month ago Mark van Gisbergen was a racing certainty to make his debut as England's full-back against the touring Wallabies. Having played such foot-perfect rugby for the three years since his arrival in the Premiership from his native New Zealand, the red-rose selectors could barely wait for him to meet the qualification criteria. Since then, the only perfect thing about Van Gisbergen's performance has been the arc of its decline.
He is now unable to claim a starting place for his club, let alone for his new country. When Wasps travel to Llanelli tomorrow for a Heineken Cup tie of considerable significance, Van Gisbergen will start the afternoon on the bench. Josh Lewsey, who has spent much of the campaign in the centre, shifts back to the rearguard position, allowing the out-sized Ayoola Erinle to partner Stuart Abbott in midfield. It is almost as if the Londoners' most successful import suddenly upped sticks and returned to the Waikato.
It is difficult to imagine a player boasting Van Gisbergen's obvious counter-attacking qualities sinking without trace, even in a land where one-cap wonders used to be two-a-penny. (Van Gisbergen did make a debut of sorts against the Australians - 11 minutes as a replacement for Mark Cueto - before being released into his club surroundings for the final week of the autumn international series.)
However, it is rather less likely now than it was back in October that he will be a key component of England's defence of the World Cup in France in 2007.
Wasps were not that interested in discussing the issue yesterday, preferring to confine themselves to the comment that Van Gisbergen was part of a "strong bench". They were more exercised by the return of Joe Worsley, their Test flanker, to a back row already containing the contrasting talents of Jonny O'Connor and Lawrence Dallaglio - a unit that must function at the optimum against a confident Scarlets side well capable of leaving the 2004 champions contemplating a second successive pool-stage failure in this most auspicious of tournaments.
Worsley pranged his knee during the Premiership defeat at Sale in mid-October, a desperate night for the Londoners that also happened to signal the start of Van Gisbergen's futile grapple with the fickle mistress of form. The injury cost him his place in the England team - frustration enough in itself, but made worse by Pat Sanderson's fine performances in his stead. The 28-year-old forward is quite capable of applying some selectorial pressure ahead of the Six Nations Championship, but he must start now.
For their part, the Scarlets are as stoked-up as ever for an Anglo-Welsh clash of real magnitude. "For the losers, this game could be the end of their Heineken Cup hopes for another year. It is that big," said Nigel Davies, their coach, who has named Dwayne Peel, the Lions scrum-half, for his first start in more than a month. "We have to step up tenfold on the performances in our last two home games - against Edinburgh in the Heineken [Cup], and Sale in the Powergen Cup - and I am determined we will do just that. Even though we won those matches, we underperformed in both."
The way Bath play their rugby, it would be somewhat contradictory to suggest that they are sitting pretty at the top of Pool Five. All the same, they are up there by hook or by crook, and two wins over Glasgow in the next six days, starting at the Recreation Ground today, would give them an even-money shot at a quarter-final place. A worthwhile prize? Certainly. But not so worthwhile that the West Countrymen are willing to flog their best players. Danny Grewcock, in fine form for club and country, is rested, with Peter Short partnering Steve Borthwick in the engine-room.
Leicester, who play the Ospreys at Welford Road tomorrow, are still without their first-choice props, Graham Rowntree and Julian White. Leeds, meanwhile, were a side without results until they made up some lost ground in the Premiership when other clubs were hit by international calls. A victory over Perpignan at Headingley tomorrow might yet turn their season around, but only a fool would hold his breath.Reuse content